Saturday, September 20, 2014

Time Heist Review

This is the placeholder post for the Time Heist review. As ever, Patreon backers will be notified when the proper review is up (although it should be fast this time, since I got to see the episode early as part of my participation in Slate's Doctor Who podcast, which will go up this evening, I believe).

Until then, enjoy discussion of the episode in comments.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Declare Yourself A Magician (The Last War in Albion Part 62: John Constantine)

This is the twelfth of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. This entry covers stories from the second and third volumes. The second is available in the US here and the UK here. The third is available in the US here and the UK here. Finding the other volumes are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: After killing Swamp Thing for the second time in his arc "The Nukeface Papers," Moore brought him back alongside the debut of one of his most important creations, John Constantine.

"How to be a magician: Simple. Declare yourself a magician, behave like a magician, practice magic every day." - Grant Morrison, "Pop Magic!"

Figure 463: The protagonist of Phonogram:
Rue Britannia
, David Kohl, is an authorial
analogue not unlike John Constantine.
(Written by Kieron Gillen, art by Jamie
McKelvie, from Phonogram #1, 2006)
Essentially every significant figure in the War has written the character at one point or another. Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Warren Ellis all wrote issues of Hellblazer, as have most of the more marginal powers: Garth Ennis and Peter Milligan both have sizable runs, for instance. The only major figure not to have actually written Constantine is Kieron Gillen, who reacted to DC’s 2012 cancellation of Hellblazer by noting that “part of me also thinks ‘you’re not a real British Comics Writer unless you’ve written Hellblazer.’ So that’s me doomed,” although as Gillen has also noted, his first arc of Phonogram, “Rue Britannia may as well be Hellblazer, of course,” which is accurate enough, and applies equally well to his run on Journey into Mystery. Beyond merely having a long running comic with an impressive array of writers, however, Constantine has also proven a profitable character for DC’s larger corporate owners, who spun out a quasi-successful movie version and, in 2014, a television series based on the character.

It is also notable that for all that Moore is known to spit occasional invective at his former employers for, as he memorably put it in one interview, “going through my trashcan like raccoons in the dead of the night” in lieu of actually coming up with new ideas, Moore has never demonstrated any particular animosity over the continual use of John Constantine. As Moore himself notes, “ I understood that when I had finished with [Constantine] that it would just be absorbed into the general DC stockpile,” and even provided a blurb for Brian Azzarello’s 2000 run on the title. “I’ve never objected to that,” he stresses, in an interview where he elsewhere rails against DC’s propensity for doing “crappy Green Lantern stories” that were “based upon an eight page story of mine from twenty years ago,” further highlighting that Constantine, at least, is a character he’s at relative peace with DC’s continual profit from.

Figure 464: John Constantine, dripping
with faint menace on his first appearance.
(Written by Alan Moore, ark by Rick Veitch,
from Swamp Thing #37, 1985)
What makes this particularly interesting, however, is that Constantine is also clearly a character of considerable personal significance to Alan Moore. Although the character certainly was created in part to satisfy Bissette and Totleben’s desire to draw Sting, Moore further explains that he has “an idea that most of the mystics in comics are generally older people, very austere, very proper, very middle class in a lot of ways. They are not at all functional on the street. It struck me that it might be interesting for once to do an almost blue-collar warlock. Someone who was streetwise, working class, and from a different background than the standard run of comic book mystics. Constantine started to grow out of that.” These are words of considerable significance coming from someone who, throughout his entire career, has vocally identified with his working class background and who, in later career, became a self-proclaimed magician. Moore’s later description of Constantine as a “wide boy occultist” furthers this sense, as does Moore’s direction in the script to Constantine’s debut in Swamp Thing #37, where he specifies that the character should carry a “faint air of menace” not, perhaps, unlike that generated by being immensely tall and having mildly terrifying quantities of hair. 

It is, in other words, not unreasonable to suggest that Constantine was always devised in part to effect a permanent alteration upon the landscape of DC Comics. Having by this point spent considerable time playing with the DC Universe’s more mystical and cosmological aspects, Moore inscribed a fundamentally new sort of character and perspective into the comics - one who was enough of a charming rogue to last and thus to provide an enduring approach to comics. If a quarter century of writers follow that approach and continue telling stories about a character whose basic iconography and philosophy are inexorably linked to Moore’s worldview, well, this is hardly something that can be called a problem or a downside. 

Figure 465: Alan Moore meets John
Constantine in a sandwich shop. (Written
by Alan Moore, adapted to comics by Eddie
Campbell, from Snakes and Ladders, 2001)
Certainly Constantine proved a powerful creation within Moore’s own life, in that on two occasions Moore met Constantine. The precise timing of these two encounters is difficult to pin down. Moore first described the initial encounter in a 1993 interview, saying,  “one day, I was in Westminster in London -- this was after we had introduced the character -- and I was sitting in a sandwich bar. All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine. He was wearing the trench coat, a short cut -- he looked -- no, he didn't even look exactly like Sting. He looked exactly like John Constantine.   He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner to the other part of the snack bar. I sat there and thought, should I go around that corner and see if he is really there, or should I just eat my sandwich and leave? I opted for the latter; I thought it was the safest. I'm not making any claims to anything. I'm just saying that it happened.” In a subsequent 2009 interview, he dates this to the “early 80s, when I’d just introduced the character,” which introduces some confusion given that the character was first introduced in the back half of the 1980s, but would nevertheless seem to clearly date the encounter well before Moore’s conscious and active engagement with magic, and, given that Moore, in talking about the encounter, also talks about Constantine’s physical appearance “in the comics at the time” (in explicit contrast to how he may or may not look in the present comics, which Moore suggests he’s not read), it would seem to date it firmly in the 1985-86 period in which Constantine made his first string of appearances. (Moore also talks about the character traveling around the world, as he does in Moore’s Swamp Thing arc.) Moore’s second account of this encounter is even more emphatic, stressing how he did not simply feel that “this is somebody who looks quite coincidentally quite like John Constantine,” but how “it was much more exact than that, I was thinking, ’that’s John Constantine, who is a fictional character that I created.’ At that point he looked at me, smiled, winked, and walked off to take a seat around the corner.” Moore subsequently emphasizes the wink, saying that it had “an intimacy and a knowing quality to a wink. It was exactly the kind of wink that any kind of fictional character might give to their creator.” 

Figure 466: Alan Moore learns the ultimate secret of
magic from John Constantine. (Written by Alan Moore,
adapted to comics by Eddie Campbell, from Snakes and
, 2001)
Moore’s accounts of the second encounter are on the whole briefer. His first description of it comes in 1999, where, after describing the initial sandwich shop encounter, he says that “years later, in another place, he steps out from the dark and speaks to me. He whispers, ‘I’ll tell you the ultimate secret of magic. Any cunt could do it.’” He follows up on this description in the 2009 interview, clarifying that the “other place” he alluded to in 2001 was in fact a magical ritual he conducted with other people. “I’d just stepped out of the room and popped downstairs to make some tea,” he explains, “and I was just passing through the kitchen when all of a sudden in the darkness on the left side of my head… it’s very difficult to describe this, but it was clearly that somebody had struck a match in the darkness, and this lit up the face of John Constantine in the sudden halo of the match flare. And he, in a typically amusing way, told me the ultimate secret of magic, very memorably, in one very short five word sentence, and then blew the match out and vanished.” He clarifies that while his first encounter with Constantine was “a real daylight event,” this second encounter was “a purely internal event that happened only within my mind, but they both seemed to be John Constantine to me.” Moore does not provide further information for this second encounter, but it must have occurred sometime between the commencement of Moore’s active magical work in November of 1993 and his recounting of it in April of 1999. 

Figure 467: John Constantine raises a glass to Alan Moore.
(Written by Paul Jenkins, art by Sean Philllips, from Hellblazer
#120, 1997)
These two events dramatically heighten the already powerful sense that Constantine serves, if not as a straight authorial insertion akin to, say, Grant Morrison’s King Mob or Kieron Gillen’s David Kohl, as a figure who is intimately linked to Moore himself. But it is also worth noting that Constantine’s life outside of Moore is a genuine one - Moore is his creator, but other writers, most notably Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis, are on the whole more responsible for the character as he is currently known. And even within Moore’s life, there is a sense of independence to Constantine. He first appeared to Moore of his own accord, and even his second, more magically significant appearance was not one in which he was deliberately and consciously summoned. But even as he suggests that Constantine independently manifested in a real and literal sense within a Westminster lunch spot, Moore also emphatically refers to himself as John Constantine’s creator. While John Constantine has taken on a life of his own in many senses, then, it is important to note that this life is one lived by someone with numerous ideological and aesthetic similarities to Alan Moore, and one that continues to haunt the corporation that Moore would eventually come to furiously shun, wrecking whatever subtle havocs he pleases. 

Figure 468: A regrowing Swamp Thing develops a mouth to talk to
Abby, although his first message is not entirely welcome. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Rick Veitch, from Swamp Thing #37, 1985)
Given this, it is significant that Constantine’s first appearance in Swamp Thing #37 (ironically drawn by Rick Veitch, given that it was Bissette and Totleben whose desire to draw Sting led to the character’s creation) corresponds with the second of three times that Swamp Thing comes back from the dead within Moore’s run. Just as the first return in “The Anatomy Lesson” served to fundamentally reconceptualization of Swamp Thing, so too does “Growth Patterns” alter the character. Part of the alteration is of Swamp Thing’s own making - his plan to come back involves growing himself a new body, and thus much of the issue, set over the course of just over two weeks, consists of Swamp Thing slowly reforming under the care of Abby, who finds his tiny bud-like form in the swamp and brings him home to water him. These portions of the issue consist of charming and sweetly loving interactions between Swamp Thing and Abby, such as a scene in which Swamp Thing finds himself frustrated at deficiencies in Abby’s lawn care, complaining to himself that “she should water the soil and not me. If the droplets magnify the sunlight, I shall burn,” and that the insecticide she uses to get rid of the aphids (which he finds annoying in their own right) hurts. “Perhaps,” he muses, “I should concentrate on developing vocal apparatus so that I can tell her where she is going wrong,” which, the next day, he does, leading Abby, with a small smile, to quip “well, pardon me. How about ‘thanks for all the water?’”

Swamp Thing’s rebirth is narrated in parallel with sequences introducing John Constantine as he visits a number of friends and allies in pursuit of information about some unknown apocalypse, described by each of them in differing terms, which will prove to be a major feature of Moore’s run going forward. Finally, on the thirteenth day of the story, Constantine journeys to Louisiana and confronts Abby, blackmailing her into letting him talk to Swamp Thing. There he highlights the greater potential of Swamp Thing’s regrowth, pointing out to him that he can “let your body die in one place” and “regrow it in another on the other side of the country,” thus allowing Swamp Thing to instantaneously travel across the world. In doing so, Constantine suggests a much larger and more substantial conception of Swamp Thing that goes far beyond just being a mass of vegetable matter that mistook itself for Alec Holland, calling him the “last plant elemental in the entire bloody world,” a claim that also sheds light on the “Abandoned Houses” story that reprinted Wein and Wrightson’s original Swamp Thing story, and Abel’s claim that “Alec Holland was not the first thing to walk the swamps.” 

Figure 469: Swamp Thing tediously travels
by freight train. (From Saga of the Swamp
 #3, 1982)
This newly established power of transportation is on one level simply Moore accomplishing one of the revisions to the character concept he decided was necessary from the start. “Another point that struck me,” Moore says, was “that we had to come up with a better way for the Swamp Thing to travel around, rather than constantly moving around the country upon freight trains or in the boot of a car or in some truck. It was tedious.” Giving him the ability to effectively teleport is, in other words, part of the steady transition away from the Wein/Wrightson approach towards the character. Even without an extended explanation or definition, the phrase “plant elemental” is evocative in terms of its potential. But that potential is a world away from “swamp monster.” The implications of this are as intriguing to Swamp Thing as they are to the reader - he’s quickly hooked by Constantine’s apparent knowledge, and agrees to Constantine’s deal that if Swamp Thing meets him in a town called Rosewood, just outside of Chicago, he’ll tell Swamp Thing more about what he is.

This serves as the beginning of the so-called “American Gothic” arc (the name was never actually used in the comics), a storyline in which Constantine leads Swamp Thing on a tour of the United States to confront various classic horror tropes like vampires and werewolves. The timing is apropos - Moore had taken his first trip to the United States in August of 1984, midway through the Arcane arc of Swamp Thing, and the same month that Marvelman ceased publication in Warrior. There he had hobnobbed with DC executives and gotten variously praised and treated as a bit of a golden boy. He hit it off some of the DC staff - particularly with his editor, Karen Berger, and with Julius Schwartz, a long time DC editor, who impressed Moore by having the signature of H.P. Lovecraft in a scrapbook, having served as his literary agent late in Lovecraft’s life. [continued]

Thursday, September 18, 2014

No Comics Reviews This Week

Sorry - I couldn't get to the shop yesterday, so I've not actually read anything this week save for WicDiv, which I didn't want to wait for, and so pirated in advance of buying a floppy today when I actually do make it. If I make it today. Which I might not, because I have to go into NYC to record that Slate podcast. So, yes, it's a rather busy week.

WicDiv is marvelous though.

In any case, I'll either run reviews on Sunday or fold the highlights into next week's reviews. Last War in Albion will be up tomorrow, and is a fun one - pretty much all John Constantine, and one of the most extended discussions of magic thus far in the War. I've started writing the next chapter now as well, and that's proving fun as well. I've decided that the sort of standard "two or three posts of historical background followed by a more or less chronological working through of the comics interspersed with digressions" approach that I developed starting around the Doctor Who/Star Wars chapter, and really honed for the Captain Britain chapter has clearly become a crutch to be discarded, if only for the sake of clearly establishing for the umpteenth time that thinking you know what to expect from Last War in Albion is never entirely safe. So the chapter has all the right bits, but not in the most obvious order - instead, it's very much structured to come right off the end of the Swamp Thing chapter, and to maintain the tone that ends with. It's the first time I feel like I've really used the "continual essay" aspect of Last War in Albion well over a chapter transition.

More broadly, I've finally gotten to where I'm looking at this first volume as a book unto itself, and it seems pretty clear to me that the one-two punch of Swamp Thing and V for Vendetta is the climax of the book. The first seven chapters are an extended exercise in anticipation - the structure of the Captain Britain chapter writ large, in effect. They go through almost everything they can possibly justify going through before getting to one of Moore's masterpieces. Then we do two in a row in a big, triumphant roar of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century announcing himself to the world. And then it shrinks back down for the final two chapters, to try to get back to a sense of quiet and calm so that when I finally face Watchmen in Book Two, it lands in a world prepared to be completely upended. I suspect Chapter Nine will be 10+ parts again, but that Chapters Ten and Eleven will both be <10. I fully expect to weep, remembering the days I was foolish enough to believe that.

One of these days, I'll have to sit down and outline Book Two. I have absolutely no idea how I'm going to fulfill the promised structure on that, but I find myself weirdly confident that it can be done. It's becoming increasingly clear to me that gratuitous structure is very much my comfort area in writing, for better or for worse.

Spoiler: Last War in Albion will end with Alan Moore standing over Grant Morrison's dismembered corpse proclaiming that he has delivered the twenty-first century.

More or less.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 82 (The Fades)

After the Moffat/Willis/Wenger team broke up, Moffat was paired with Caroline Skinner as his new co-executive producer. As we've already discussed, this was seemingly not a creative partnership that ended happily. Nevertheless, Caroline Skinner occupied a position on Doctor Who that was nominally as Moffat's equal opposite number, and though her tenure is brief, it must surely be considered as important as, say, the departure of a script editor or a producer during the classic series. To wit, Caroline Skinner was, upon taking the Doctor Who job, most recently coming off of a BBC Three series called The Fades. This, then, provides us with one of our occasional opportunities to see what the BBC thinks Doctor Who’s nearest equivalent shows are. This is, apparently, how you get the top job at Doctor Who: make The Fades first.

In their defense, it was a well regarded show. It got lovely reviews, and a BAFTA. It has a fine pedigree, and there are no reasonable grounds to complain about Caroline Skinner’s appointment based on it. There’s a few very reviewish paragraphs following this one, and they’re going to point out strengths and weaknesses, and it’s worth noting that all of the strengths are things that would have been in Caroline Skinner’s remit as producer, and all of the weaknesses can be laid at the feet of the writer, Jack Thorne. In other words, appointing her was a smart move - they got the producer of what was, in hindsight, apparently the country’s single best drama in 2011. 

No, neither the BBC nor Caroline Skinner can really come in for any criticism here. What can come in for some real criticism is, apparently, British drama in the year 2011, because The Fades is a bit shit. It’s a frightfully generic show. It’s clearly BBC Three trying to get another Being Human together. It’s a generic British horror show for teens and twenty-somethings made in 2011. It’s very post-Skins, and the writer worked on that show, but it’s just as much post-Buffy and post-Being Human and post-Supernatural (nope, not doing a Pop Between Realities on it) and, for that matter, post-Marvelman, about which you can at least say it has the decency to namecheck Alan Moore in the second episode. But the point stands - this is the same basic stunt with genre fiction that’s been going around since the 1980s. Whatever its merits, at the end of the day, The Fades is a TV show that can accurately be described as children’s telly tarted up with some Natalie Dormer nude scenes, and really, that’s a tough criticism to recover from.

On top of that, there are some infuriating things about the writing. It takes three female leads to have one who comes off as a remotely nuanced or interesting character, and one suspects that’s mostly down to Natalie Dormer, who’s one of those actresses that instantly elevates anything she’s in. But it’s perhaps more damning and accurate to note that neither Lily Loveless nor Sophie Wu, who are also both quite capable actresses, can rescue their characters. The climax involves gratuitously fridging the main character’s girlfriend, who is literally gunned down purely to provide motivation for the main character. (And I mean literally - the person who shoots her is explicitly doing so to get the main character to do as he’s told.) I use the word “climax” deliberately, because there’s nothing resembling a resolution here. The final episode hits “this is the apocalyptic finale” notes throughout, but it forgets to actually resolve them in the final act. The final episode ends with a cliffhanger that’s not so much “here’s the next season big bad that emerges out of the ashes of the previous season’s victory” but rather “after this season’s big bad is killed off the story never actually decelerates at all, and we just stay in the crashingly epic tone until the final credits.” It feels like you must have missed the seventh episode. 

This is made all the more frustrating by the fact that the show has rather too much premise, such that it takes several episodes to actually map it out to any satisfying extent. This is fine if you’re actually going anywhere with your complex premise, but the resolution really does just turn out to be a bombastic “find balance between dark and light” resolution that doesn’t need half as much premise as it has. The key “aha, here’s how we defeat him” moment is entirely a product of fiddling with the series premise as opposed to the characters, which is disappointingly bland. All of the show’s best moments come out of the character drama, and yet it never has the confidence to actually spend time there. 

It’s not all bad, however. It’s very well cast, a fact that’s especially visible a few years later when you realize three prominent characters went on to Game of Thrones and the lead got picked up for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. This last one is particularly good - Iain de Caestecker is extremely, extremely good, with an ability to make it feel like he’s underplaying it no matter how intense he goes that lets him, in turn, get incredibly intense without ever feeling like he’s about to start munching on scenery. He’s a very clever choice for a lead, especially here, where he has to make compelling drama out of repeatedly and seriously proclaiming, “I’m not a killer.” But other bits of casting are less solid. Joe Dempsie’s a fine actor, but he’s completely out to sea with a charismatic and villainous leader figure. He sells the banal ordinariness of evil, making John into an adequate counterpart for the equally obsessive “light” figure, but given that the role is clearly intended to be the Devil, it ends up feeling like you were going for Tom Hiddleston and cast Chris Hemsworth. And it all looks gorgeous. In terms of shooting effective horror, this is top notch. Beautifully lit, great locations. 

It is, to be clear, easy to see why people like this, given how many things exactly like it there are in the world that people also like. But it’s also, if not slightly frustrating, at least slightly wearying. This feels in many ways like the statistical average of television in 2011, and the fact that such a bland show provided the nearest Doctor Who equivalent is a bit disheartening. Though in the BBC’s defense, despite its BAFTA, they cancelled it after one season. Less in their defense, that seems to have been more about money than about recognizing that this was not a show that looked like it would improve after going through the initial set of best ideas and into the ideas that weren’t quite good enough for the first season. All the same, it feels like the tier below Doctor Who should be livelier than this.

Which is all a way of saying that as of 2011, it had been a while since anything really disruptive and innovative happened within genre storytelling. It really has just been a matter of watching various media catch up to where Alan Moore was in the mid-80s. Use the basic structure of children’s adventure fiction, only throw in adult elements (whether as a synonym for “complicated” or “has shagging”) and be sure to state your theme loudly and explicitly in the dialogue in case anyone misses it. That really does describe not just The Fades, but half of sci-fi/fantasy television. I mean, The Fades may obviously be trying to scratch the same itch as Being Human, but it’s not like Being Human didn’t nick a scene from Miracleman in its third season. And, I mean, the reason the approach is repeated as often as it is is, at the end of the day, that it works. 

But it still, to be honest, feels tired. It’s easy to do perfectly adequately, but the degree to which it’s easy increasingly feels like a reason not to do it. There’s a real need for something that feels different. And for all its experiments in non-linear storytelling in the last two years, Doctor Who, if we’re continuing with this whole honesty thing, hasn’t much transcended it either. And clearly, if The Fades is what they think people who make good Doctor Who would also make, the BBC doesn’t expect it to, and is perfectly happy to see it trot out the same old basic formula that it’s perfected and been successful with for six seasons now. Which, fair enough - not many shows are as successful as Doctor Who for as long as Doctor Who. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Instead, go for capable imitators. 

Which tells us about what to expect heading into Season Seven: meet the new boss, same as the old boss.


Monday, September 15, 2014

You Were Expecting Someone Else 32 (Night and the Doctor)

When the DVD set of Season Six came out, one of the biggest special features was a cycle of five shorts collectively titled Night and the Doctor. They total about sixteen minutes in length, and consist of two pairs of two shorts, one called “Good Night” and “Bad Night” focusing on Amy having insomnia on the TARDIS and catching glimpses of the Doctor’s extra adventures, the other called “First Night” and “Last Night” that are an explicit two-parter about the Doctor and River’s first date, alongside a fifth short, “Up All Night,” featuring Craig and Sophie in the immediate lead-up to Closing Time, and which feels not entirely unlike an unused prequel that was grafted onto the other four episodes somewhat arbitrarily.

These shorts fit into a larger tradition within the Moffat era that began with two special features on the Season Five box set, a pair of scenes entitled “Meanwhile in the TARDIS” and paired with early episodes. Both basically involve going through a bunch of standard premises of Doctor Who (“why did you make your time machine look like a Police Box” and “have there been other companions” and the like) as comic sketches. And it continued on the Season Seven set, with a trio of mini episodes there. At which point we should probably talk about the prequels to Name of the Doctor, The Bells of St. Johns, the couple of prequels to The Snowmen, A Town Called Mercy, Asylum of the Daleks, The Wedding of River Song, Let’s Kill Hitler, A Good Man Goes to War, The Curse of the Black Spot, and The Impossible Astronaut. And, of course, the two Day of the Doctor prequels, “The Last Day” and “Night of the Doctor.” And the “Time” and “Space” shorts for Red Nose Day. And Pond Life. So all told, there are something like thirty shorts set within the Eleventh Doctor era, comparing to, I believe, three plus Attack of the Graske for the entire Davies era. And one of those was by Moffat too.

Clearly the short is a thing within the Moffat era. This is not entirely surprising. Setting aside the prequels, which tend to serve as just a different sort of trailer, the bulk of the DVD-based shorts are comedies. Within Night and the Doctor, for instance, there’s “Bad Night,” which is an extended farce built around a plot in which aliens have apparently turned the Queen of England into a goldfish, in which all we get is a brief scene between Amy and the Doctor (and Rory, very briefly) in the middle of the adventure. “Good Night” is a sweet little thing about Amy’s changing memories that ends with Amy buying her past self an ice cream cone to cheer herself up on a bad day. 

This is, of course, a familiar structure for Moffat, who got his start in sitcoms. He’s good at structuring a sketch, knowing how to get in and out before a gag runs dry. (As “Time Crash” demonstrates, really.) And that’s all most of these are - well-structured and well-delivered gags. Individual shorts have various things to recommend them - from the way the prequel to Let’s Kill Hitler fills a major emotional beat absent from that story, to the way “Space” and “Time” actually do fall down kinda badly on the whole feminism thing, to the way that “Last Night” goes through three minutes of a multiple timeline farce before suddenly resolving to a not-actually-a-punchline in which the Doctor is confronted by the knowledge that it is in his Matt Smith incarnation that he’ll take River Song to the Singing Towers. But it tends to be a thing where you can say one or two sentences worth of good observations about a given short, and then you’re kind of done.

But let’s go back to that last one, because it actually is interesting. For almost its entire runtime, “Last Night” is a comedy, but it pays off with a stark and painful reminder of River Song’s mortality and of the fact that the Doctor goes into this relationship with the knowledge of its ending already written and fixed. It may be short and mostly the most Moffat-on-autopilot filler imaginable (since Moffat writing farce is basically the Moffat equivalent of white noise at this point), but it’s structured with a very strong and brutal tone-change. The easy farce is there precisely to be easy and give way to something else.

Which is where it starts to become understandable why there are so many mini episodes in the Moffat era. Because they pair well with the structural innovations that Moffat has been bringing in. Moffat has increasingly been favoring using Doctor Who’s ability to do genre switches repeatedly and quickly within episodes, so that they change tones and approaches multiple times in the course of forty-five minutes. Another way of looking at this, then, is that episodes are increasingly structured like sequences of mini-episodes. Where Doctor Who used to be one story spread out over multiple episodes, now it is serialized in the sense of being several stories concatenated into one episode. 

Some of this is simply the natural consequence of Moffat’s approach to writing - a logical response to, say, The Great Game. But it’s also, I would argue, a consequence of directorial decisions that play to Moffat’s style, and have over the course of 2010 and 2011 been part of a cycle of influence that has honed and refined a new style. Things like Toby Haynes’s effective use of the Silence as figures that interrupt and break the visual storytelling of the show pushes towards doing a show that really is a pile of broken-up styles. Nick Hurran’s approach of abandoning the idea that the camera depicts real spaces instead of genres does too. The approach of inserts as in the “praise him” montages in The God Complex feed into it too, reinforcing the way in which Moffat is prone to use repeated phrases as metonyms for entire thematic constructs. (Note how the impact of “Last Night” depends on the audience recognizing the phrase “Singing Towers of Darrilium.” Or on how Moffat grabs phrases that evoke the long history of Doctor Who, as with “not one line,” or “never cruel nor cowardly,” or “fear makes companions of us all.”) 

And again, that lends itself to the mini-episode. One of the things that definitely happened in the latter half of Season Six was a sudden acceleration of the pace at which narrative unfolds. And the way that manifests is in a willingness to experiment with what can be left out of a narrative without losing the basic function. Increasingly, the focus becomes how quickly you can do world-building and how few lines you need to actually set something up. At its worst, this becomes little more than fetishizing narrative velocity for its own sake, and at times in the remainder of the Smith era it will feel like stories are moving quickly for the sake of it, as opposed to because they actually have a lot to say and need to get through it. But equally, given the experimentalism of the approach, it’s only to be expected that a fair amount of effort is going to be spent learning what does and doesn’t work. But the mini-episodes are a key part of that, inasmuch as part of their point is figuring out what Doctor Who can do as a five-minute container. Or as a one-minute container. 

But it’s also worth commenting on the turn towards mini-episodes as a turn away from what made up the bulk of extra content during the Russell T Davies era, namely behind-the-scenes features. The Moffat era has consciously shown less about how the show is made, and has instead opted to give the audience extra little chunks of show. The rise of the mini-episode, in other words, is part of a turn towards focusing more on Doctor Who as a text and less on Doctor Who as a production. This also goes hand-in-hand with Moffat’s aesthetic. His intensely allusive, reference-based approach to writing, and his self-conscious love of structure invite a degree of attentiveness and even obsessiveness. Moffat increasingly writes to be rewatched, especially when he’s doing narrative substitutions, in which case much of the first viewing of a story is wasted being taken in by the red herrings, and it’s not until a second viewing that it becomes possible to watch an episode on its own terms. 

There’s a turn here, though, in which Doctor Who becomes a show that is about the pleasures of the text. It exists to be taken apart and read closely, so much so that there is almost no point at which the phrase “reading too much into things” applies. It is a show that is about reading extremely and perversely into things. When every single sentence can be as pregnant with meaning as this structure allows, what can “reading too much into things” even possibly mean? Moffat’s work, around this point, becomes strangely and wonderfully obsessed with testing the limits of what an episode of television can do. It is, in its own way, as fascinating and radical as Doctor Who has been since the Hartnell era.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fear Makes Companions Of Us All (Listen)

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The best cosplay I've ever seen at a convention was a gender-
swapped Link and Navi in which Link led her partner around
on a leash, having scrawled "no you listen" on his chest.
It’s September 13th, 2014. Lilly Wood and Robin Schulz are at number one with “Prayer in C,” while Iggy Azalea, Sam Smith, and Script also chart. In news, Oscar Pistorius has been found guilty of culpable homicide, the US has been finding a new way to announce that it’s at war with ISIS, and it’s down to the wire with the Scottish Independence referendum, although really, we should save that for next essay.

While on television, Doctor Who does Listen. At the moment, and I’m writing this paragraph about ninety minutes after transmission, this seems set at near universal praise. 85% rating it an 8-10 on GallifreyBase, with a staggering 42.6% giving it a ten out of ten. The immediate post-episode reviews all seem to love it. Blog and Twitter comments are raving, although people who tend not to like Moffat’s stuff seem to really hate this one. Which is to say, ladies and gentlemen, that we seem to have an instant classic.

I’ve watched this twice now. And it deserves that and more. It is undoubtedly a “big Steven Moffat statement” of an episode, conceived on the level of The Day of the Doctor or Deep Breath. It is ostentatious and meticulous in the way that Steven Moffat at his best is. This is a writer who knows that he is at the height of his professional career and is cackling madly about it. It is also, unmistakably, him writing the cheap and disposable one with no budget - and doing it, by his own admission, because he wanted to “prove he could still write.” 

He’s used the production schedule of Doctor Who very slyly here, doing a story that a twelve episode season requires, as a piece of BBC-produced drama, if it’s going to throw a whacking big CGI dinosaur into the opening three seconds of the season premiere for no reason other than to set up some jokes and a death scene for the Doctor to start investigating a mystery. It’s just that he then wrote it like it was The Big Finale. It draws all its structural tricks from Nick Hurran and Ben Wheatley, and shares its approach with Time of the Doctor and His Last Vow. Except there’s no actual monster - it’s all creepy edits and lighting changes. It could be the Silence. Maybe it is, and we’ll pay that off in some future episode, because this is only episode four and Doctor Who has plenty of surprises left in its back two-thirds. We’re still in the “introduce Peter Capaldi with episodes by the old hands from Seasons One and Two and Five, or who worked on The Sarah Jane Adventures.” The actual new writers and experimental phase comes later.

All the same, this had been getting buzz. It’s the one nobody could quite keep themselves from talking about when it leaked, whether they just read the script, or whether they were friends of Marcelo Camargo. Because it’s so ostentatiously brash. Clara is the monster under the bed for the Doctor, and teaches him a crucial line of dialogue from 100,000 BC to calm him down. In the barn where the climax of Day of the Doctor happened, where he was hiding because he didn’t want to be a soldier and was scared. And that’s a detail - the climax of an episode that’s mostly about other things. It’s willfully baiting a certain segment of the audience, to the point where it almost counts as trolling. Those who complain that Moffat messes around too much with Doctor Who continuity will predictably hit the roof.

Let them. It’s nothing Lance Parkin and Lawrence Miles weren’t doing in the 90s. Moffat turns it to a particular purpose and tone - one of predictably fairy tale beauty. The rhythms and cadences of the best moments in Harry Potter. The same stuff he always does. But he’s still good at it. And, I mean, there’s a way in which this typical counterargument to the Moffat era just crumbles at its own mass of evidence. Yes, you’re right, there are an awful lot of recurring tropes of the Moffat era that appear here. 

For instance, people teased it for referencing the title of Blink, which it does. The monster you have to not look at to let it get away is, of course, just another iteration of the Silence and the Weeping Angels. The date is just Coupling. Going back and meeting the companion as a child. John Hurt. There’s a nursery rhyme. Monsters under the bed. Silence. The “tap you on the head and make you sleep” gag from Deep Breath. Romantic relationships based on meeting people out of order. Soldiers with PTSD. The Doctor and romance. 

Except at some point one has to say, this is an awfully long list. I mean, that’s twelve separate things Moffat does over and over again. And we could have gone on. That starts to look more like variety than tedium, you know? I mean, at the end of the day Moffat did just drive the series to where it was the #1 program on British television again, something previously only accomplished by Russell T Davies. And instead of walking off stage and doing Miracle Day, he stuck around. Sure, Time of the Doctor got a mixed reception, but Deep Breath went over pretty well, and this probably will too. We’ve got to admit, whatever the guy’s doing, whatever his formula may be, he’s visibly a major television writer at the height of his powers right now. 

Through all of this, though, what jumps out is just how precisely measured Listen is. Moffat plays to his strengths ridiculously. He hasn’t done a tone of relationship comedy in the last few years, but it was his bread and butter for a decade, and he hasn’t forgotten how to do it. Clara and Danny are a cute couple, and though the episode seems to suggest that they’re probably not going to last (and neither are Clara and the Doctor by the way), Moffat writes them so that it’s easy to invest in them. Clara is at once visibly a real human with real desires and emotions and the embodiment of “generic companion.” 

But again, the suggestion of blandness has depth. She may be the generic companion, but she’s good in an awful lot of situations. She’s great talking down Rupert, and then hands it off smoothly to the Doctor, then takes control back again to help put Rupert to bed before the Doctor does a “dad trick” and returns her to her date so she can try again. There she has a bit of a maternal instinct, which she then goes back to at the end. In between, she’s a self-identified bossy control freak who’s trying to let go and be reasonable and adult in her relationships. Her magic friend’s gotten a bit weird, but he still takes her to cool places like the end of the universe. Sometimes, she becomes the monster under the bed for the greatest hero in the universe, so that’s neat too. All of this feels like facets of a human being. Jenna Coleman has demonstrated that skill from the start, popping up in a random role in Asylum of the Daleks, then playing two different Victorian children’s book heroines, and being absolutely charming as she steps between them. Then she becomes a companion where this is her entire point - she becomes millions of different mini-companions throughout Doctor Who. Now she gets to balance being the lead in the 2014 edition of “Coupling meets Chalk” (good God, who expected we were going to get back to that as an influence in Moffat’s career) with being a Doctor Who companion, in the same scene, with that completely over the top space suit in a restaurant gag. I mean, again, yes, this is repetition, but at some point the sheer size of the thing makes it strange to call that a down side.

Capaldi is similarly good at doing a whole lot of things. The decision to start him with Deep Breath and just have him run through a whole bunch of different things building to the thing that everybody wanted as soon as they heard the idea, which is a scene like “I have a terrible feeling I’m going to have to kill you,” or “there are three people in the universe, and you’re lying to the other two,” or “then you will never travel with me again” (And of course, he can be pushed to such excessive threats just by a desire to poke the darkness at the end of time with a stick in case there’s a monster in it. Which is somewhat silly. It’s easy to see how he could lose Clara, to be honest) pays off again, and he takes the time here to once again just find a lot of different ways to play things.

He’s very good, is what I’m saying. We’re just a few stories in, but there’s the real sense that he’s figured out how he wants to do this. He’s playing his dream role, and he’s decided to just do it. There was always the implicit comparison to Pertwee, based on a vague physical resemblance and the decision to have that first costume shot be explicitly modeled on a Pertwee publicity photo. But inasmuch as he’s playing the role like Pertwee, it’s in deciding to follow his decision to just be the Doctor. He enjoys playing certain types of roles, and so he’ll play the Doctor like those roles, at times seeming to start over with his characterization every scene. (Along with Pertwee, this is basically how Eccleston played the part.) But equally, he’s an actor who’s enjoyed a diverse career, and so much like Moffat’s repetitions or Clara’s repetitions, this results in a sort of predictable diversity, which is satisfying if you like that kind of thing. Millions of people continue to, so again, Moffat clearly knows how to satisfy an audience. If you’re one of the legions who like this stuff, you’ll like this. And if you’re one of the vocal and non-trivial number of people who hate this stuff, you sure will hate this. 

I like this stuff, and I like this. It still feels complex and interesting and fresh and fun. I am loving my Doctor Who. For my money, this is very probably the best opening four stories of any Doctor Who season ever. Hell, for my money this is the best run of seven stories ever. Even if you don’t pick any of the stories as among your top ten. (Though I do pick at least one to be, personally. Amusingly, it’s probably the least popular) 

There are already a lot of people declaring this a classic. There probably always will be. It feels a lot like it must have at the height of some of the other legendary Doctor Who eras. Those eras where the show was usually at least watchable fun, might blow it once a season, and would guarantee you at least one or two stories a year that were absolutely brilliant. You know. The great eras. When, over three years, you had The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, Terror of the Zygons, The Brain of Morbius, The Deadly Assassin, and Talons of Weng-Chiang, and those might not be the best six. Or when you got Remembrance of the Daleks, Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Ghost Light, and Curse of Fenric over the course of seven stories, and two of the other three were brilliant in their own strange ways. When everyone making the show is confident of what they’re doing. Such eras always end, but this one is still visibly going strong. Moffat has decided he’s going to go for being ranked with Robert Holmes as arguably the greatest Doctor Who writer of all time, and the truth is, there are people who will make that argument for him. I may well be one of them, whenever it is I get around to being the arbiter of history and writing a book about it. Which I will, inevitably.

Four stories in a row now, and in each case it felt like the production team was in complete control of what they were doing. Like they knew what they wanted to do, and were capable of doing that well. Three out of four, the public has gone with them emphatically. It’s easy to imagine this having a long, exciting legacy as children’s television. What more can you possibly ask for from Doctor Who?

  • I love what they did with Orson Pink. I thought the entire sense of future with him was perfectly timed. A hundred years from now. 150 years after Doctor Who. The Jack the Ripper murders were closer to An Unearthly Child than Orson Pink is to us now. And yet it still feels reachable, and like something that extends out of the present day. The first of the great time shots - terrible time travel experiments that overshoot and fling you to the end of time. There’s a neat trick here, in that the time travel can possibly only send you forward, so it’s entirely plausible. One model for how time machines might work is that you can’t go back earlier than the first time machine, so time machines that can only propel us into the future where we can’t possibly change the past are always a possible invention. It’s a very clever use of the sci-fi ends of what Doctor Who can do.
  • The guy in the children’s home whose coffee the Doctor steals is played by the same actor who plays Mr. Matchbright opposite Alan Moore’s Mr. Metterton, which is to say the Devil to Alan Moore’s God in Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins’s short film cycle Show Pieces. In this episode, of all episodes. Fans of my wider work can imagine just how much this feels like the universe made me a birthday present. Also, apparently he played a Mandrel in Nightmare of Eden. I am not making this up, though IMDB might be. 
  • I really want to highlight how beautifully careful the barn sequence is. On the one hand, it does everything that's self-evidently a terrible idea in playing with the Doctor’s origins. On paper it sounds like an unfathomably bad idea. But in practice, Moffat keeps the world vague enough, makes Clara’s intervention at once a crucial part of the origin and a minor one around which there can be far more, and meticulously avoids actually doing any of the things that would make this a bad idea. 
  • So, how impolitic is it to say that it’s blatantly clear that the “damaging” leaks of the scripts and workprints were nothing of the sort? The truth is that quality material isn’t hurt by seeing the inside of the sausage factory. Had the workprints pointed to a trainwreck, that would have been one thing. But as with Rose, the consensus of those who saw the early releases were that they were quite good. And they have been. This isn’t a comment on any of the ethical issues involved in acquiring illegally obtained digital files of any sort, but it is one on the degree to which having digital versions of your work freely available hurts your ability to have it be commercially successful, which is to say, to no degree whatsoever, as long as the work itself is good.
  • I’ll be doing Slate’s Doctor Who podcast next week, alongside my regular review here. That’ll be Time Heist, which is by Stephen Thompson, so was hopefully rewritten into something nice like Reichenbach Fall was. If nothing else, it’s apparently making Abslom Daak canon. 
  • Yes, there will be a Capaldi book, and this will be the Listen entry in it. No, there’s no time frame on that, but I am 100% convinced that the second Tom Baker book will be out in late September/early October. I have turned the last round of copyedits in to the copy editor, so she just has to go over those. The cover is done. And I need to get one more essay written, but there’s a thing I have to do for that, which is an awesome thing, assuming it comes through, which I really, really hope it will. Seriously, if this essay comes off, it’s going to be a real treat for people. 
  • Rankings so far:

  1. Listen
  2. Deep Breath
  3. Into the Dalek
  4. Robot of Sherwood

Friday, September 12, 2014

Hey, You Guessed My Name (The Last War in Albion Part 61: The Nukeface Papers, John Constantine)

This is the eleventh of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. This entry covers stories from the second and third volumes. The second is available in the US here and the UK here. The third is available in the US here and the UK here. Finding the other volumes are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Following the landmark vegetable sex issue of Swamp Thing, "Rite of Spring," Alan Moore returned to the story he had delayed in order to write the return of Anton Arcane, "The Nukeface Papers." 

"Hey, you guessed my name. Why would we be so coy with the miracles, Cassandra? Maybe because we didn't want to scare the shit out of you." - Kieron Gillen, The Wicked and the Divine #1

Figure 451: Swamp Thing is mortally
injured by the toxic touch of Nukeface
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve
Bissette and John Totleben, from Swamp
 #35, 1985)
“The Nukeface Papers” provides an interesting split between its two installments. The first issue, when it was published, was basically a six-month old script, the story having originally been intended for publication in July of 1984. In many ways the first part shows this - it follows the basic structure Moore used for the first issues of his preceding three arcs, with the storyline’s threat intrudes upon and infects Swamp Thing’s world. In this case the threat is the eponymous Nukeface, a drunken derelict who has become deranged by and addicted to the nuclear waste buried in his hometown of Blossomville, Pennsylvania (a thinly veiled version of Centralia, Pennsylvania, a town destroyed by an underground fire in a coal mine that is expected to continue burning for the next quarter-millennium), and who has come to the bayou because his stash in Pennsylvania has been cemented over and new waste is being deposited in the swamp instead. Swamp Thing dreams of Blossomville as Nukeface approaches, seeing a place where “something bright and awful kissed the world, and left its smeared blue lipstick-print. The soil is curdled, and all that grows, grows wrong. In a skin of black cinder, puddles reflect fire, red and wet and glistening like sores.” Disturbed, he goes to investigate, only to be touched by Nukeface, leaving a blue and bubbling wound on Swmp Thing’s body as he collapses. By the time the issue saw print six months later, Moore had stretched his wings creatively, and so the second part, published in February of 1985, had an altogether different tone. 

Figure 452: Steve Bissette worked physical newspaper clippings into
his pencils for "The Nukeface Papers." (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Steve Bissette and John Totleben, from Swamp Thing #35, 1985)
Even the first issue, however, showed a passion for formal experimentation. Throughout the story Bissette adds scraps of newspaper that flutter in the breeze or float rotting in the waters of the swamp. These newspaper fragments are not mere illustrations, however - instead Bissette inserts photographs of actual newspaper clippings he saved up, creating a collage of real headlines about environmental pollution and Bissette and Totleben’s art for the story. “As Jones said during his Erie visit, a toxic waste dump site, located anywhere in the area, could be a major source of new jobs,” one says. “A French cargo ship that sank off the coast of Belgium Saturday night was carrying containers filled with a form of uranium used to make fuel for nuclear reactors,” another explains. Others are more fragmentary - one talks about “shoddy work and forged documents” in relation to the unfinished nuclear power plant in Marble Hill, Ohio, while another talks about an unspecified nuclear disaster that involved seven hundred radioactive pellets left in a truck “which became dangerously ‘hot,’ emitting 50 rads of radiation every hour.” Another has an out of context quote by a “Mr. Sotelo” who says “It’s OK, we’re still alive. Maybe the doctors exaggerated the danger.” Other headlines talk of familiar disasters like Three Mile Island and Bhopal.

Figure 453: The burial of a child victim
of the Bhopal disaster.
All of these, it is worth stressing, were real events. The Bhopal disaster, for instance - referenced in several headlines in the second part of “The Nukeface Papers” - happened just two months before that issue was published, on the night of December 2nd/3rd, when a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide’s Indian subsidiary released a cloud of methyl isocyanate gas along with other chemicals. This was not the first industrial accident at the plant, which had a history of incidents going back to 1979, but by the December of 1984 the plant was in such poor repair that the bulk of safety systems were completely offline. The accident was caused when water entered an overfilled tank of methyl isocyanate, which caused a rapid chemical reaction accelerated by the iron that had leached from rusting pipes. The tank rapidly heated, resulting in a rise in pressure, and emergency venting released nearly 75% of the gas within the tank. The official and immediate death toll killed nearly four thousand people, along with causing a 300% increase in the stillbirth rate and a 200% increase in neonatal mortality. Causes of death included choking, pulmonary oedema, and reflexogenic circulatory collapse, and autopsies further showed victims suffering from cerebral oedema, necrotising enteritis, and other similarly awful effects. Overall estimates of the death toll, taking into account those who died subsequently of conditions caused by the disaster, go as high as sixteen thousand. Union Carbide eventually paid $470 million in damages, or roughly 5% of their 1984 revenue. 

Figure 454: Nukeface triumphant.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve
Bissette and John Totleben, from
Swamp Thing #36, 1985)
But the formal experimentation of the newspaper clippings crosses over to the writing itself in the second part, which is told in a style bearing an obvious debt to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, with seven separate characters each getting a section devoted to their perspective on events, culminating in a Nukeface section in which he comes to realize that he won’t be able to get more of his nuclear waste from Louisiana, but who decides that “there’s gotta be some more of it out there someplace,” and that he “don’t care if I gotta look in every state, every town… every street, dammit! It’s there, boy. I know it’s there… perserverence and determination, that’s all it takes… Heads up, America,” he declares, before a final splash page of Nukeface, arms spread, declaring, “here I come!” to a sky now full of Steve Bissette’s newspaper clippings.

Figure 455: Swamp Thing's jaw rots off.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve
Bissette and John Totleben, from
Swamp Thing #36, 1985)
But in many ways the bigger plot point comes in the two sections written from the perspectives of Swamp Thing and Abby. In them, Swamp Thing lies in agony after being contaminated by Nukeface’s touch. “Throughout the long paralyzed night my mind is caught in a gauze of delerium,” Swamp thing narrates. “With the first light of dawn, I notice that my arm has gone. The day passes slowly. During the afternoon, a hole appears in my stomach. Soon my lower half will be detached. As it starts to decay, my head fills with ice-blue nothingness.” He tries to call out to Abby with his mind, and as night falls again she reaches him, and they talk briefly. “I tell her what I plan to do,” he explains, “and then my lower jaw falls off, and after a while, I die.” Later, at the end of the issue, the same scene is told from Abby’s perspective, revealing that Swamp Thing’s plan is to try to build himself a new body, but with no certainty of success, and showing him fester away to nothingness, dying for the second time in sixteen issues. 

Figure 456: Grant Morrison's "The Liberators"
ran in the same issue as the penultimate
installment of Chapter Two of V for Vendetta
(Written by Grant Morrison, art by John
Ridgway, from Warrior #26, 1985)
By this time, Moore had solidly established himself as a hot writer in American comics. February, 1985, in fact, proved a very big month for him: he published sixty-one pages with DC comics, netting him £637 a week from that alone - more than twelve times the £40 he sought to make five years earlier. On top of that, he began writing backup features for Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg and saw the second part of The Ballad of Halo Jones commence publication in 2000 AD, along with the final installment of Warrior, by this time featuring no Moore work save for the still-continuing V for Vendetta (although it did feature Grant Morrison debuting on a Dez Skinn-designed feature called The Liberators). In terms of work published in ongoing, serialized comics (as opposed to things like Lost Girls where several hundred pages of material saw print all at once), this marks the most productive month of Moore’s entire career.

There is, however, a strong case to be made that it is the next month, March of 1985, that was the more important month in Moore’s career, that being the month that he introduced the character of John Constantine to Swamp Thing. This would prove to be an act with significant ramifications, both for DC and for Moore’s own life. For all the eventual importance of the character, however, his conceptual origins are almost comically idiosyncratic. At the root of it is the fact that Steve Bissette and John Totleben were big fans of the Police, and Bissette in particular “liked Sting, because he had a great face and I was a big fan of the movie Quadrophenia, where he plays Ace Face.” 

Figure 457: Steve Bissette
and John Totleben drew
Sting into the background
of an early issue of Moore's
Swamp Thing (From Saga
of the Swamp Thing
 #25, 1984)
Bissette and Totleben had in fact already included Sting in the background of a scene in Saga of the Swamp Thing #25, and, as Bissette tells it, “we wrote Alan, and said ‘We’re going to put Sting in the comic, and Alan, you better make it a character, because he’s not going to go away. We’re going to make him more and more visible, whether you like it or not.’” Moore was apparently suitably amused by this impetuous demand, and created a character for Bissette and Totleben, albeit not modeled off of Sting in Quadrophenia, but rather off of his appearance in Brimstone and Treacle

Figure 458: Sting as Ace Face
in Quadrophenia
The difference between these is not inconsiderable. Quadrophenia is a 1979 film adaptation of a rock opera by The Who that, somewhat curiously, removed most of the actual musical bits. It featured Sting as Ace Face, a charismatic Mod thug who, in an iconic scene, completely fails to give a damn about a magistrate criticizing the Mods for being violent thugs and casually pays off his hefty fine out of his wallet, to the amusement of all the other slightly less cool Mods. Brimstone and Treacle, on the other hand, is a 1982 adaptation of an unaired Dennis Potter television play. The script dates back to 1976, having stopped off as a stageplay in 1977, and features a middle aged couple caring for their near-adult daughter after she was severely disabled in an accident. Their lives are turned upside down by Martin Taylor, a con man who worms his way into their house by taking advantage of their fractured marriage and then rapes their daughter before being chased off into the night, after which the daughter has miraculously recovered, only to reveal that she remembers her father cheating on her mother. Sting played Martin Taylor in the film version.

Figure 459: Sting as Martin Taylor in Brimstone and
Unlike Ace Face, who went through the world with an archly cool bluster, Martin Taylor is a scheming trickster figure. Sting’s view of the character was that he was the literal Satan, a possibility the film flirts with, although its ending also suggests that he may be an ex-priest of some sort (thus making the film a cousin of “A Kind of Justice,” and, impressively, a far grimmer one). The script is, like much of Dennis Potter’s work, a piece of dark absurdism in the classical, theatrical sense. Potter is fond of including dream sequences and exaggeratedly staged sequences, often with musical accompaniments. In Brimstone and Treacle, most of these sequences focus around Martin Taylor, including a disturbing sequence in which he prays with the wife, who glows beatifically even as Taylor’s prayer is accompanied by stagey flashes of lightning and her daughter screams in increasing terror. This gives Taylor a strange power within the film - he breaks the fourth wall in small, subtle ways, seeming to be aware of the sort of story he’s in even as the people around him remain oblivious.

Figure 460: The true nature of the
Newcastle events was finally
revealed by Jamie Delano in Hellblazer
As introduced, John Constantine is a similar trickster figure with a slyly self-aware relationship with the genre in which he appears, arriving in the comic boasting about how he understands who Swamp Thing is better even than he does. Initially, very little is clear about him beyond that he is British, knows a reasonable amount about the supernatural, and is talking to people about some imminent apocalypse. Unlike Martin Taylor, he’s not straightforwardly malevolent - indeed, by the end of his storyline in Swamp Thing he’s been emphatically revealed to be, on balance, a good guy, albeit a ruthless one who will do whatever it takes to stop the dark forces he confronts - throughout his story, there are various comments about some horrific event in Newcastle that left deep scars on Constantine and several other people, and by the end of this arc Constantine’s actions to save the world cost several people their lives and involve cruel betrayals of several more, though not, notably, Swamp Thing himself. 

Figure 461: John Constantine featured
in a television series premiering in
2014 on NBC.
Whatever pop culture artifacts he emerged out of, however, the creation of John Constantine would prove to be an act with tremendous ramifications. For all that Moore’s brief period working for DC would have tremendous impact on the American comics industry and the world, there are actually precious few enduring characters that Moore created for DC. He sold them V for Vendetta and created Watchmen for them, but these works exist outside the shared universe that makes up the bulk of DC’s publications, and were, at least from Moore’s perspective, creator-owned projects. When working on what Moore understood to be company-owned properties at DC, and indeed in general, Moore preferred to play with the depth of existing concepts, treating company-owned properties as an occasion for textual play. As he put it in the introduction to the first collected edition of his Swamp Thing comics, “the continuity-expert’s nightmare of a thousand different super-powered characters coexisting in the same continuum can, with the application of a sensitive and sympathetic eye, become a rich and fertile mythic background with fascinating archetypal characters hanging around, waiting to be picked like grapes on the vine.” And when in DC’s vineyards, Moore was generally happy to restrict himself to blending what had already been planted. With the exception of John Constantine.

Figure 462: Kieron Gillen upon finding out that he would
never get to be a real British Comics Writer.
But what a vine to plant. John Constantine comics have been published essentially continually since Moore’s departure from Swamp Thing, when Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer started up alongside the Rick Veitch era of Swamp Thing. Essentially every significant figure in the War has written the character at one point or another. Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Warren Ellis all wrote issues of Hellblazer, as have most of the more marginal powers: Garth Ennis and Peter Milligan both have sizable runs, for instance. The only major figure not to have actually written Constantine is Kieron Gillen, who reacted to DC’s 2012 cancellation of Hellblazer by noting that “part of me also thinks ‘you’re not a real British Comics Writer unless you’ve written Hellblazer.’ So that’s me doomed,” [continued]